Is disability fashion’s forgotten diversity frontier?

When it comes to diversity, there’s one area that often goes unmentioned – but who’s making a difference and where is there still work to be done?

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Aimee Mullins Dazed Fashion Able
Paralympic Athlete Aimee Mullins in Dazed’s September 1998 Fashion Able issuePhotography Nick Knight, styling Katy England

This weekend, the internet lit up with the news that Madeline Stuart, an 18-year-old Australian girl with Down’s Syndrome, had been booked to walk at New York Fashion Week after a social media campaign by her mother to get her recognised as a model. It wasn’t the only good news – last week industry-leading agency IMG announced that they had signed Jillian Mercado to their books, a model with spastic muscular dystrophy who first made her fashion debut in a Diesel campaign after applying online. “She’s fierce, and nothing gets her down,” said agency president Ivan Bart. “It’s a great opportunity for us.” Mercado was even more thrilled – “I can't even begin to describe this feeling. Anything in life is possible if you only believe in it hard enough,” she wrote on Instagram to her 15k followers.

But it’s not just diverse casting that’s getting attention – back in May, Parsons student and Cardiff native Lucy Jones won her school’s prestigious Womenswear Designer of the Year award for her collection Seated Design, which sought to empower wheelchair users through more comfortable clothes adapted to their bodies. Independence Day, a clothing line developed for children with autism (featuring easy to put on clothes that don't have a ‘right way’ around and have a pocket for an optional GPS tracker) has also been garnering press reports. But in 17 years since Dazed & Confused joined with Alexander McQueen and Nick Knight for Fashion Able, a cover shoot that put fashion and disability in the spotlight, how much has really changed? Topics like diversity and gender identity are firmly on the agenda, but are people as clued up about ableism? 

Cat Smith is a doctoral researcher at the London College of Fashion, whose work “examines the relationship between disability, clothing, fashion and identity for women with mobility impairments.” Smith, who runs the blog Stylishly Impaired, gets inspired by “how people express themselves and negotiate identities through their clothing” – after all, “clothes are one of the few things that everyone (well, nearly everyone) has in common.” We approached her to get her thoughts on how things are changing when it comes to representation, designing for those with disabilities, and how selfies can be a radical act.

Are things moving in the right direction? 

Cat Smith: Increased representation and discussions around diversity are always welcome, and the fashion industry appears to be taking notice of criticisms made regarding the importance of diverse representations. However, these discussions can sometimes appear to be circular, that every once in a while there will be the inclusion of disabled models in campaigns or on the catwalk, which will generate some talk and column inches, only for nothing to really come of it. Then after a while, the same thing will happen again. Unfortunately this gives the impression that the inclusion of disabled models is nothing but a tokenistic gesture, and raises questions about the motives behind it. Are these publications, designers or advertisers genuinely invested in creating more diverse representations, or are they just jumping on a bandwagon and paying lip service in an attempt to seem inclusive?

Have there been any positive changes recently?

Cat Smith: Recent developments such as Jillian Mercado’s signing to IMG hopefully indicate that things are changing in this regard, and is what I would like to see more of. Another interesting development recently is the way in which designers are starting to pay attention to how clothing can be designed and adapted to suit different needs, those of a wheelchair-user for example, or someone with autism. There's some really innovative work going on and I think this potential should be pushed within fashion design courses. I see a lot of incredible, often radical, work coming from young designers and I think many would jump at the chance to design around the artistic ‘problem’ of designing for different bodies, or for particular sensory needs. The designers who I admire are the ones who push the envelope, who challenge how we perceive clothing and bodies. Disability representation should, therefore, be seen as much as an artistic possibility as it is in terms of diversity or inclusion.

What is the biggest misconception about disability when it comes to fashion?

Cat Smith: I think one of the biggest misconceptions is the same misconception that surrounds disabled people in general – that we're not worthy of being seen and that we don't have the same wants and desires as non-disabled people. From my conversations I have had with other disabled women for my research, one of the big things that comes up is that people just expect that you're not going to give a shit about how you look because you are disabled! Clothes are a very powerful tool of self-presentation, and what I’ve learned, both from my research and my own experiences, is that they can be used to dispel some of the myths surrounding disabled people. You don't have to exist in a so-called ‘perfect’ body to enjoy clothes, to feel good about yourself and the way you look.

“People just expect that you're not going to give a shit about how you look because you are disabled!...You don't have to exist in a so-called ‘perfect’ body to enjoy clothes, to feel good about yourself and the way you look.” – Cat Smith

How are social media communities like Tumblr or Instagram involved?

Cat Smith: Social media has been huge in providing support, community and inspiration. Of course, it’s certainly not unique for disabled people to find community online, you can see this with many other marginalised and under-represented groups. What excites me about this is that it is disabled people representing themselves, rather than merely being subjects. We talk about the male gaze, but a similar thing can also apply to representations of disabled people through a non-disabled lens. On places such as Tumblr you bypass this, you get what appears – to me at least – to be a more genuine representation of the diversity within the disability community.

For a disabled person to post a selfie, for instance, to social media, feels radical to me in many ways. The representations we see of disability in the mainstream are still quite narrow, so for someone who might exist outside of these parameters to post a picture, to feel great about themselves is hugely important. It's a way of taking back the narrative surrounding disability, which says that disability is a “bad” thing, an ugly thing which should be hidden away, and a way of claiming ownership of our differences. It can help foster community and a positive disabled identity for people.

Which designer do you think has most meaningfully engaged with disability?

Cat Smith: The designer I think has most meaningfully worked with disability and disabled bodies is Alexander McQueen. If you look at both the Fashion Able editorial and his Number 13 show, there is an understanding of and willingness to see disability as an aesthetic possibility, something which can be worked with, rather than disguised. At nearly two decades old, the Fashion Able editorial remains one of the few high profile examples of disability representation in the mainstream. Then there are designers such as Izzy Camilleri who designs innovative clothing for wheelchair users. Her designs (at IZ ADAPTIVE) really shows an understanding of the needs that many wheelchair users have when it comes to clothing.

“For a disabled person to post a selfie, for instance, feels radical to me in many ways. It's a way of taking back the narrative surrounding disability” – Cat Smith

Visit Cat’s blog Stylishly Impaired here, and head here to read more about Fashion Able.

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